Most members of the Clemson football team watched the Gator Bowl game Monday night. Periodically throughout the telecast a commercial was shown promoting Friday's Sugar Bowl game.
Jerry Gaillard, one of the Tigers' wide receivers, can recite the commercial by heart: "The Sugar Bowl has decided the national championship four of the last five years. Can Georgia do it again?"
Gaillard snorted when he finished. "Can you believe they said that? I can't even comprehend it. What are we? All we are is 11-0, so they can ignore us, right? I mean it caused a big stink with us."
With the players, perhaps; not the coaches. From Danny Ford down, Clemson's coaches have been reminding their players for almost a month now that, even though they are 11-0, even though they are ranked No. 1 in both polls, it will take a victory over Nebraska in Friday's Orange Bowl here to convince people that a team from the Atlantic Coast Conference can play football with the big guys.
"Really, we won't know until the game," all-America receiver Perry Tuttle said. "You play a school like Nebraska, a school we've never played; there's no way for us to tell how good they are until we play them."
Clemson is playing a role this week. It is portraying itself as the mistreated, persecuted underdog. The Clemson people were upset when they arrived in Miami because they believed Nebraska was given the better hotel. They are upset by the betting line, which has Nebraska (9-2 and the Big Eight champion) a four-point favorite.
They are upset with the media for not taking them seriously--they say--and for asking questions about the ongoing NCAA investigation of the football program.
And Ford, like any coach, is doing his best to paint as dark a picture as he can for his team.
"Nebraska's the best team we've played in five years; better than Notre Dame or Ohio State or anybody else we've seen," he said today. "I don't know if we're good enough to play Nebraska. I'm not trying to play psychologist or anything. I'm just telling you the way it is."
Nebraska is ranked No. 4 in the country and has won eight in a row. But quarterback Turner Gill, the catalyst for most of the season, suffered a mysterious injury in the season's 10th game that has left him with a paralysis in his right foot. He can't play and the Cornhuskers aren't the same without him.
Tailback Roger Craig is a fine back, having rushed for more than 1,000 yards this season, but he is not I.M. Hipp or Jarvis Redwine. Center Dave Rimington won the Outland Trophy, but matched against Clemson's nose-guard combination of William Devane and 6-foot-3, 305-pound freshman William Perry, he is unlikely to dominate the middle.
In short, Clemson's opposition is not one of those teams that will jar the memory years from now. It is Nebraska's 17th bowl team in 18 years and this is the fifth New Year's Day bowl in nine years for Coach Tom Osborne. But this team does not compare with the Bob Devaney national championship teams of 1970-71 and, in the opinion of many, it won Osborne's first outright Big Eight title by default. Oklahoma was down this year.
But whatever Nebraska is or is not, Clemson will win the national championship if it wins Friday's game because it will be the only major college team with a perfect record for the season.
Ford, 33, admits he is feeling the pressure. "I feel good, I think we're in good shape but my skin's peeling," he said. "That happens to me when I'm real nervous about something."
The players say that, much like the week of the North Carolina game when the coaches were noticeably uptight, practices have been a little stricter and there have been fewer light moments.
"The other day I dropped a pass and one of the coaches yelled at me like it was really a big thing," Tuttle said. "I said, 'Coach, cool out.' "
Clemson's ability to deal with a situation it has never experienced before is the big question. Bowls are nothing new to the Tigers--this is their fourth in five years--but it has been 23 years since Clemson played a New Year's bowl and never has a previous Clemson team done anything but wish for a national title.
"Let's face it, we've been through all this before," said Nebraska's Mark Mauer, who will start at quarterback in Gill's place. "Our people know what to do, how to make plans, when to get down here, how to prepare. We know it by rote. I would think that helps us."
"We've definitely had to make an effort to forget about the distractions," Clemson defensive end Bill Smith said. "We've done everything the same as any other game; practiced the same times, met the same times. But we all know it's not the same."
"Yeah," Gaillard added. "Whether people want to admit it or not, this is for the national championship."